My first deep dive into politics was as a reporter covering Ronald Reagan's inaugural address. It was 1981 and I was 10 years old. My 5th grade teacher at Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mrs. McQuillan, tasked her class with watching the president's speech and writing up what the he said from the steps of Capitol Hill. Mrs. McQuillan described Reagan's inauguration as a Significant Political Event and said it was important for us to bear witness. The old man with the jet black hair talked for about 20 minutes. There were a few topics I didn't understand—tax burdens, inflation, monetary policy—but even as a snot-nosed running brat I grokked what Regan was getting at: America was a great nation. We had taken some lumps in the 1970s but we were still pretty great—and getting better all the time.
We were a nation under God. (Reagan even suggested that each Inaugural Day in future years should be declared a day of prayer.) We were a nation of heroes, both everyday ones and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, from Bunker Hill to Belleau Wood to Vietnam. We were a nation of equal opportunity: "with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination." We were a nation of compassion: "How can we love our country and not love our countrymen?" And we were a nation whose best days were not behind us, who could face the crisis confronting us, knowing it required "our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds."
Suffice to say, I was smitten. Reagan displayed a clarity of purpose, rigid moral compass, and sure-footed optimism in his inaugural address that seemed to my young mind to be the Platonic ideal of the American leader. I painstakingly punched out my report, my patriotic duty, on an old Royal typewriter my mother had consigned to the third-floor office. It took hours and it was messy—the "m" wouldn't strike properly and I had to shift back and use two slightly overlapping "n"s instead. I'd never used a typewriter before but the gravitas of the moment seemed to require it. (Best effort and belief in the capacity to perform great deeds and all that.) My paper had the breathless tone of Pravda circa 1962 writing about Krushchev's latest five-year plan. If one agrees with George Orwell's definition of journalism as "printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations," then I was clearly on the PR side. I got an A, though Mrs. McQuillan demanded that I not hand in any more typewritten reports until I knew how to use a typewriter properly, which, in her opinion, was not going to be anytime soon.
It's worth noting that not all the reports were as laudatory toward the president as mine, reflecting the diversity of political opinion across the children (and their parents) in the school. The political alignment of my own family was (and is) very liberal and I didn't show my report to either of my parents, nor my grandmother, whom we lived with. I didn't think of it as such at the time, but my crush on Ronald Reagan was tantamount to a secret rebellion—which would not remain secret for long.
Around the same time, our class began work on a book project for language arts. Our assignment was to, well, write a book. We were responsible for writing the story, draw the illustrations, and be mindful of page layout, as the pages we were writing and drawing on would then be sent out to a printer to be made into a leather-bound volume, an honest-to-goodness actual book. (I tried to prevail upon Mrs. McQuillan that my handwriting was atrocious and that she should allow me to type my story onto said pages, but she wasn't having it.)
My story, such as it was, was an apocalyptic yarn about a group of Godless secularists that take over the world in 2020 (which seemed so far away in 1981) and hunt down all the Christians and kill them. The book ends with the last Christian (my humble protagonist, named Micah for some reason I can't recall) being martyred and God then destroying the universe. The illustrations were crude tableaux in magic marker of laser-gun battles and multi-colored explosions. It was pretty awesome, as I recall, and I'd love to see it again, but the book has been lost to history. Perhaps it's for the best, as I believe I plagiarized most of the storyline from one of my father's pulp science fiction magazines.
My grandmother, who had spent her career working in the media—as a radio and TV personality as well as an editor at House Beautiful magazine—was instrumental in helping me conceive, conceptualize, and produce Fools, All of Them! (The title of my book refers to the final words of the last Christian before he's vaporized by a heathen laser.) My grandmother withheld judgment throughout the process, indulging every goofy creative whim of mine, including taking up the whole last page of the book with a drawing of the whole world going kablooey, just like the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. She did suggest, somewhat forcefully, that the book should end with some hint of redemption rather than straight-up nihilism. I took the note, and added in some portentous lines below my beloved exploding planet illustration about how God would try again...someday.
Around the time the book was going to press, John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. I knew what I had to do to finish the book: I would dedicate it to the president, a national hero! When I told my plan to my parents, they were thunderstruck. "You're going to dedicate your book to the doofus from Bedtime for Bonzo?" my father exclaimed. Despite entreaties from my mother, father, and Mrs. McQuillan to honor my grandmother for all the work she put in to Fools, I would not be moved. The dedication read: "To Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States. God Bless America." This marked the first of a long string of idiocies I've committed to paper. My grandmother died suddenly just a few months later.
As I've evolved over time in my political thinking, I've come to disagree with most everything Reagan did as president and stands for as a political symbol. But that inaugural speech of his, that sure was something special. And in many respects, Trump's inaugural wasn't that different. They used many of the same words: God, jobs, America. But why did those words sounds like a promise coming from Regan and a threat coming from Trump?
Department of Corrections
In the January issue, we profiled the home of Franc Palaia and Eve D'Ambra, a historic property in Rhinebeck ("Relics of Love"). There were a number of errors in the story. An updated version of the piece, with links to historical documents and photos relating to the site, is available here.